Harry Potter had Albus Dumbledore. Pretty much everyone in The Lord of the Rings franchise had Gandalf. He wasn’t the headmaster of a school for young wizards, but much like Dumbledore, he was a wise, old wizard. Not only that, but he could also probably rival Dumbledore in magic, and that’s a fight I’d love to see happen. So how is he different from Dumbledore? Other than using the wand, he’s a much better mentor than he is. Actually, I’ll go even further and say he’s the best movie mentor ever. A pretty bold claim, but it’s one that I’ll stick to. Whether he’s Gandalf the Grey or Gandalf the White, he has the uncanny ability to say something that will just make everyone more calm. Maybe the soothing voice of Ian McKellan is what helps with the delivery, but that’s just the beginning.
What makes Gandalf so great runs so much deeper than his status as a great wizard. While Dumbledore was considered the wisest and greatest wizard in the wizarding world, Gandalf was actually considered neither of those throughout Middle Earth. The wisest and most powerful wizard in Middle-Earth was Saruman. This is why Saruman was the head of the Istari order and served as the epitome of what every wizard should be. Even Gandalf himself admired Saruman and relied on his guidance whenever he was lost. That’s also why it was quite heartbreaking when he realized that Saruman had betrayed the order and joined forces with Sauron. They fought and Gandalf lost.
This happened very early in the first movie and that’s actually why it’s so important. Gandalf is basically what we would be if we were wizards in a world filled with other very powerful wizards. He’s the underdog of the group; he’s not the biggest and not even the most powerful wizard, but he actually doesn’t need to be. While he’s still very powerful, he didn’t make a name for himself by showing off his power.
Pretty much everyone in Middle-Earth knows who he is and have much respect for him. Gandalf earned this respect not just by protecting them, but by being among them. When we first see him, he enters The Shire and the Hobbit children are happy to see him. As he rides his carriage away from them, he sets off some of his fireworks, much to their delight. Later, at Bilbo’s birthday party, he uses the rest of his fireworks, making it a night to remember for everyone at The Shire.
Now let’s just think about that. Gandalf is a very powerful wizard who still finds the time to bring joy to the common people of Middle-Earth. It’s his responsibility to protect everyone from evil, but he doesn’t forget to be among them. That’s more important than it sounds, because if he spent all of his time fighting evil and with other wizards, he just might forget to care about what he’s fighting to protect. By spending casual time with regular people, Gandalf knows full well what being human is all about.
I mean, come on, he smokes a pipe and makes smoke figures with Bilbo. Did Dumbledore do that with Harry Potter? There’s probably no other very powerful wizards who would just hang out with their friends and kick back. Not only is he the people’s champion, but he’s also the kind of guy you can just chill with.
That’s not the only thing that makes him more human, however. Gandalf losing his fight to Saruman early in the Fellowship of the Ring showed that he wasn’t all powerful. This didn’t make him less of a great character; what it did was made him believable because he was vulnerable. An indestructible protagonist is never an interesting one, because it quickly gets boring seeing them win all the time. Gandalf wins often, but he doesn’t win every fight. Even when he became the more powerful Gandalf the White, he was still vulnerable. What’s so admirable about him is that his defeats didn’t humanize him, because he was never vain or ego-driven.
A great example of this is when Frodo offered him the ring out of desperation. Gandalf instantly refused it, despite admitting that he would have every intention to use it for the greater good. However, he subsequently confessed that even he would succumb to the dark powers of the ring. That’s the critical difference between him and Saruman. Saruman, in his hubris, believed he could challenge Sauron, but was quickly seduced by the powers of the dark lord. Gandalf, however, recognized his own limitations and refused to be even tempted by the ring’s power. Saruman earned his way as head of the Istari Order by being wise and powerful, but he forgot what it was like to be human. It’s a lesson that cost him everything, but for Gandalf, it was always a part of him.
I can’t talk about Gandalf without talking about his uncanny ability to just say the most inspiring words. What’s most inspiring is that he doesn’t just do this for the young Hobbits, but for literally everyone. From Aragorn, to Thorin, or even to King Theoden, everyone can feel warm and fuzzy inside after hearing Gandalf talk. The thing is, I can’t decide which inspiring speech or quote is the greatest. Why not even talk about how he can be funny? When he first meets Bilbo, he sarcastically questions on what Bilbo’s “good morning” meant. And who can forget his famous philosophy on wizards never being late? Not only can he inspire, but he can make you laugh. Such a rare, golden package of a character.
But honestly, what’s the best thing he’s ever told to the other characters? To me, he’s at his best when he lifts someone’s spirits in the most dire situations. Some great examples is when he tells Pippin about death and how it’s just another path that everyone must take. He does this when the Orc army is mere minutes away from breaking through and killing them all. That’s not even enough to dampen his spirits, however, and he passes this on to Pippin. His words of wisdom doesn’t just make him smile while under siege, but gives him hope.
Gandalf’s whole purpose in Middle-Earth is to give others hope. This was J.R.R. Tolkien’s intention when he created him. He’s the most purest angelic form there is and one that is always looking out for people when they need it. He does this especially for Frodo when the latter tells him how he wishes his misfortunes never happened. In what is probably Gandalf’s greatest moment, he tells Frodo that we all wish the bad things never happened, but sometimes, that’s out of our control. His lesson to Frodo was to convince him that we can’t change what happens, but we can decide how to move forward. Frodo always remembers this lesson and it’s precisely what keeps him going until the end of his journey. Gandalf sure has a way with words.
Gandalf will always remain as one of my favorite fictional characters ever. He’s wise, powerful, humorous, compassionate, but despite all his power, he’s still very much human. Thank you, Ian McKellen and Peter Jackson for helping bring this magnificent character to life. In the end, we can all learn from Gandalf.